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Gold Fever III: Moe’s Turn

We made a couple more trips into the gold fields under my tutelage without, I confess, much success. That’s when Moe—and I should have seen this coming—decided to have a go at it. He spent his evening hours in the library pouring over newly-condensed microfiche newspaper articles from the gold rush era. It was hard on the eyes and even harder on credibility; I’m pretty sure the Mark Twain-style embellishments of that day led quite a few hopefuls to dry wells, so to speak. However it happened, Moe settled on a little-known (but filthy rich, he claimed) area known as Pi-Pi Valley that was pretty high up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains which, as you will see, has a part to play in this story.

Another important part to keep in mind is the time of year this took place. Moe’s employer was moving him from the Bay Area to San Diego in April so Moe wouldn’t be around this summer for prospecting. No, if he was going again it would have to be soon, as in this very month of March. I remember that part well because we headed to Pi-Pi Valley the afternoon of my birthday, March 10th. It had been an unusually dry winter, and although a storm had been forecast Moe wasn’t a bit worried. He was driving us in his Volkswagen station wagon and he often boasted of how it would plow through snow without a problem, much like a Willys Jeep on steroids. Since we’d both lived in the San Francisco area for the past several years I have no idea how he came to that conclusion, but he held to it with unbridled conviction. That was the third, and final, marble that dropped us into what was an obvious looming disaster. Anyone with half a brain could have told you so, but…

Half-brains notwithstanding we drove up California’s narrow, winding Highway 88 until we actually came to a sign telling us Pi-Pi Valley was down a dirt road to our left.

“Well how about that?” I asked, a bit incredulous that it would have its own sign.

“I’m telling you Andy,” Moe began, “This is good gold country, probably the best-kept secret ever.” He’d been telling me about it the whole trip, but I kind of took it with a grain of salt. Pi-Pi Valley, it seemed, had been mentioned in a few 19th century newspaper articles about a dying 49er who was found to have several little nuggets on his person, and in the best traditions of the Lost Mines of the era was heard to utter some kind of gibberish that was translated by a family member into a family legend—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—that to this day remains unsolved. It was thought by all to be describing a strike near Placerville that later developed. Thought by all except Moe, that is. Moe, after reading and rereading and re-rereading everything about the incident came to the firm belief that the gold came from Pi-Pi Valley, which wasn’t anywhere near Placerville, or any gold-rich area that I was aware of. Still, I wasn’t exactly batting a thousand finding gold so why not give it a try?

Looking back on it, I would say a snowflake presented a pretty good reason not to give it a try; one single snowflake, about the size of a quarter, came drifting down into the headlights as we turned off onto Pi-Pi Valley Road. Just the one, you see. It deposited itself on the windshield and immediately melted and although there was a moment of disquiet in my mind, you’d in no way call it menacing. As we drove on down there appeared a second snowflake, and then a third, and then nothing. When we arrived at a creek of some sort, maybe a couple miles from the highway, Moe found a nice level spot to park and we slept in the car, after a few comments about how magnificently we’d weathered the storm, har-de-har-har.

The following morning we woke to white; white windshield, white side windows, white rear window. Oops. Unless someone threw a sheet over our car while we slept, we could be in trouble here. And as it turned out we were in trouble. There was close to two feet of snow out there, enough that Moe was unable to push the driver’s side door open. It was all he could do to get the window rolled down far enough to climb out. He then cleared enough snow to open the door, but that was about it. We sure weren’t going anywhere on wheels today.

Well we couldn’t stay there; nobody had a clue as to where we were and truth to tell we weren’t entirely sure where we were either. So we had no option other than to walk back to the highway in our California ‘winter clothes’, which were warmer than what you’d wear to the beach, but not by much. And there was the matter of food; it was still snowing and we didn’t want to take the time to dink around with breakfast, because most of what we had was canned goods for the stove. For portability we found a large bag of peanuts in the shell, two canteens of water and a pint of Old Grandad Whiskey, all of which we threw into a canvas bag we would take turns carrying. Moe rolled the driver’s window up and for some reason locked the doors, and away we went.

If that sounds reckless, which it does from here, it’s because it was; we gave little to no thought to survival, and the idea that we could perish out there never crossed our little pea brains. A major snowstorm in the High Sierra is serious business, much, much more demanding of resources than a bag of peanuts and a flask of whiskey. I did not know that, apparently.

We had some idea of following the road back to the highway, but that went awry almost immediately as the snow was deep enough to camouflage any hint of a recognizable way out. So we figured we’d just walk uphill and sooner or later we ought to come to pavement which ought to have traffic of some sort which ought to pick up a couple of walking snow cones which ought to result in some kind of a ride back to civilization. Or something.

As you can see, we didn’t have a real focused plan.

In the end we were rescued by snowmobilers. They happened upon us while we were taking a break, leaning against a tree we were using as a windbreak while shelling peanuts. Moe heard the revving engines afar off and suggested someone was either A) using a chainsaw or B) mowing a lawn. Either way it was sure a welcome sight when the snowmobiles came roaring through the blizzard, which our storm had become in spite of the unfairness of it all. They were as surprised to see us as we were to see them, which should have been surprising; there are millions of acres of nearly-uninhabited National Forest land up there. What’re the odds of bumping into someone, anyone at all? But there it is, and that is no doubt the only reason Moe and I lived through that one.

We learned a lot though. We learned enough to write our own book on what not to do, but still very little on what you should do. I don’t know if Moe pursued prospecting after that—never saw him again after he moved south—but I kept it up now and then, mostly with Cousin Bob as my sidekick, and then with my wife after retirement got me. My daughter and her husband even treated us to a placer mining claim near Tecopa, California which we promptly named Hebrew 11:1. That bible passage, for those of you not familiar with it, reads “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”.

Just like gold fever.



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